Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Child's Play: IF and I SAW THE TV GLOW

John Krasinski’s IF is a miserable, infantilizing family film that disrespects children and adults in equal measure. It’s advertised as coming to us “from the imagination of…” the Office actor turned writer/director. If his Quiet Place movies, workmanlike horror pictures with modest charms, were enough to convince you he had one, here’s reason to doubt. It’s sloppy, sentimental hogwash about Imaginary Friends abandoned by children who grew up and forgot them. One girl (Cailey Fleming) encounters some of them corralled by a tired, impish ringleader and caretaker (Ryan Reynolds). She’s sad because she has to live with her grandma (Fiona Shaw) while her dad (Krasinski) undergoes surgery for an unnamed ailment. For all we know, he merely has a terminal case of whimsy, what with his few scenes eventually petering out with limp quips and smirking self-satisfied pauses for laughs or tears that never arrive. Since the girl’s mom died of implied cancer in the opening montage, it’s understandable that she’s leery to see her dad in the hospital, and amazing she doesn’t get more exasperated by mild japes like dancing with an IV bag on which he’s placed googly eyes, or when he hides in the closet and pretends to have escaped out the window with a ladder of bedsheets. She reacts to this struggle by retreating into her creativity. Or does she? It’s all a bit too simple to be this fuzzy.

The crux of the ostensible emotion is the group of CG creatures wandering melancholically without their former children—creatures that only the girl and Reynolds can see. They all look like Monsters, Inc rejects and have big name cameo voices that rarely register as such, while they mope about doing nothing. The movie wants us to think it’s sad that they’ve been forgotten and should be reunited. But they aren’t real characters and never do anything for anyone. Ah, maybe they reawaken an inner child of some grump for a moment of two. But to what end? It’s best scenes—anything involving Shaw, a dance number to Tina Turner, the girl’s eventual tearful, spit-flecked bedside breakdown—feel dropped in from a better movie, one without its cloying contradictions and flat staging. Here’s a movie that tries to be an ode to youthful imagination being a balm for troubled times. Instead it bumbles its way into saying that we should never grow up and put away childish things. It’s arguing in favor of a permanent immaturity. Why? Because it’s a cheap hit of feel-good when confronting adult emotions is too difficult. Yeesh. We’re not exactly a society overcrowded with maturity.

Ironically, IF’s opposite is likely playing in the theater across the hall in a big enough multiplex. Jane Schoenbrun’s I Saw the TV Glow is a slow, entranced nightmare about getting trapped in childhood nostalgia. It conjures a fuzzy, bleary vibe and rides its off-kilter tremors to an odd, grotesque ending. The intimate movie follows two isolated, disaffected adolescents in the late-90’s getting hooked on a weird television program about psychic teenage girls fighting phantasmagoric monsters. Clearly a blend of X-Files, Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Are You Afraid of the Dark? it’s easy to see why a freakish blend of kid-friendly plotting and woozy creature design airing late at night would mesmerize a young teen. These two kids seem especially prone to getting drawn into such an enveloping fantasy. One is a quiet, awkward, friendless 7th grade boy (Ian Foreman, though he grows into narrator Justice Smith) whose mother (Danielle Deadwyler) is dying and father (Fred Durst) is distant. The other is a lonely 9th grade girl (Brigette Lundy-Paine) from an abusive home. She introduces him to the creepy show, and is totally into its lore, such that it starts to become the architecture of her fantasies of running away. He's scared and hooked in equal measure. As Schoenbrun gives the interactions between the teens the kind of goosebump intimacy of lost souls connecting in their brokenness, the camera’s slowly mesmerized imagery lends a grainy, hushed suburban dreaminess and creeping dread.

It speaks directly to people who allow their adolescent obsessions to overtake their personality and identity, replacing satisfying adult pursuits with increasingly hollow simulacra of real experience. It becomes a way to avoid inner truths. Suddenly, a childish idea grows and darkens and inflates in complexity and importance. A key scene is when, late in the picture, so spoilers ahoy, our lead re-watches the show as an adult and finds something almost embarrassingly quaint. All that for this? This new view rattles and echoes off a maybe-imagined reunion that devolves into a darkly dreamy magical-realist monologue. How sad when love of a TV show seems to hide what you'd express as something truer about your identity than you’re ready to admit. And how frustrating to be unable to let that childhood comfort fantasy go. The movie’s mood is so intensely focused on the hypnotic tremors of this cultish entrapment bleeding between fantasy and reality that the final moments of the picture—clangs of hallucinatory violence followed by embarrassments, deflating and awkward—bring some kind of cringing reality crashing in. It’s about an inner hollowness that can never be filled so long as you’re chasing the unattainable—nostalgia, television, your adolescent understanding of your future, or your adult longing for youth. It’s ultimately a hazy movie feeling like a half-remembered nightmare slowly leaving your head after waking on the couch in the middle of the night, bathed in the TV glow.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Playing Doubles: CHALLENGERS

In Challengers, director Luca Guadagnino puts his usual obsessive attention to sensual detail to use in a hard-charging sports picture twisted around a juicy relationship drama. Its first shots find sweat dripping in slow-motion off the faces of its main competitors—one-time friends who are now rivals in a tournament. One (Mike Faist) is a wealthy tennis pro; the other is a struggling wild card (Josh O’Connor). When they were teenagers, they both had a crush on the same rising tennis star (Zendaya). Their paths merged and diverged over a decade. One dated her. The other married her. An elaborately structured screenplay volleys between timelines, stretching what a lesser effort might make the climactic match across all two-hours of the film while sketching in the details of their criss-crossed, intertwined romantic lives. Guadagnino makes of this his usual tale of romantic obsessions and lustful appetites marveling at what the human body can do. His camera drinks in the physical beauty of his stars, while his style swoops and zooms and cuts with an ecstatic aesthetic. It has the precision scrambling chronology, snappy dialogue, and the techno-momentum of a pulsating Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, which lends the film some of the surface cool of The Social Network. It also has talented young actors effortlessly embodying suggestive body language in a screenplay of crackling dialogue that bops and zips with repartee that might as well be tennis balls.

Guadagnino’s investment in sexual tension has the film sizzling and throbbing on a different wavelength. His films are always attuned to an intimacy of touch and the suspense of lingering looks—one doesn’t make the yearning romance of Call Me By Your Name or the tingling pool-side thriller of A Bigger Splash without a keen sense of physical and emotional textures. In Challengers, that’s all compounded the sheer physical exertion of a sports movie sends pulsing energy through its teasing, tense love triangle that wraps itself into knots of jealousies and frustrations that are professional, romantic, and athletic all at once. Each sizzling interaction plays like a dramatic volley across the net, complications arising with the regular sensation of a serve and a score. Zendaya plays a steely ref between the competitors, complicated by her own thwarted career aims sublimated into her husband’s. For their part, the guys are complicated, fascinating figures, too—by turns preening and pathetic and always carrying a capacity for physical prowess. Here’s a movie about three fascinating people driven by their appetites—for each other, for winning, and for whatever success feels like. They end up manipulating themselves as much as others. The way the characters shift and share and shame across the run time, refracted through the competition animating the sequences, are finely-tuned drama. When Guadagnino goes hard on the style—taking his camera on a tennis-ball-view or slowing down to watch every rippling muscle twitch or secret speechless message—it takes the sensational drama all the farther. It’s entirely an invigorating, enlivening experience. Where most modern melodramas trend toward the plodding, here’s one that dances.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Fear Itself: THE BEAST

Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast is a nesting doll narrative full of resonances fit for an age of anxiety. He’s done this playfully serious structuring around free-floating modern fears before. His Nocturama is a tensely shaggy hangout with a group of disaffected young bombers hiding out in an abandoned mall after a violent protest—captured by capitalism even in rebellion. His Zombi Child is a boarding school drama wrapped around voodoo flashbacks that tie together into a double-knotted story of immigration and isolation—twice over lost to oneself even as one is drawn even deeper into oneself. The Beast is hooked into a modern sense of foreboding and unease manifesting as eerie stasis and passivity that makes dangers, real or imagined, no less possible. It’s wrapped in a bevy of sci-fi conceits. It’s 2044. Some undefined apocalypse has left the streets of Paris largely abandoned, with stray animals wandering about, and passerby wearing clear air-filtering masks. Léa Seydoux stars as a woman who submits a request for promotion to her Artificial Intelligence overlord (Xavier Dolan’s voice) and is told she must undergo an emotional purging. Hooked up to a pseudo-spiritual machine—a vat of goo and wires that’s one part Minority Report and one part Cronenberg—that’ll prompt her to relive past lives and purge her centuries acquiring human softness.

As it begins, the movie quickly settles into a romantic tragedy straight out of Henry James. It’s a flooded Paris of 1910 where a the owner of a doll factory sneaks up to the edge of an affair with a dashing stranger (George MacKay) she meets at an art show. From the near-future interludes to the birth of Modernism—she sees avant garde paintings and is overseeing her product’s transition from porcelain to plastic—she’s stuck in a period of technological and emotional transition. (It also cues ideas about the creation of art as reflection and population of interior spaces, matched in time with an embodied A.I. “doll” played with impressive impassivity by Saint Omer's Guslagie Malanda.) Seydoux navigates serenely yet quiveringly across times with a slippery double role, playing the subterranean romantic yearnings and curiosities as her stuffed-shirt husband drifts away in favor of a pretty and serious flirt. The movie kicks into even higher tension in its second half as the double role adds a third. Now we’re in 2014 Los Angeles where the period piece stylings are rawer within our modern memory. This section deals with the burbling impending violence of MacKay as a vlogging incel stalker (a sadly familiar type) while Seydoux is now an aspiring actress disaffectedly ensorcelled in the labyrinthine gig economy of bad commercials and empty housesitting, only freed from routine by lonely websites, lonelier pills, and somehow loneliest crowded nightclubs. If the Jamesian story is about the pain of denial and the dangerous sparks of new possible connection, the Hollywood one is about the creeping dangers of the lack of connection.

In each time period, Seydoux and MacKay are on a collision course, sometimes romantic, but always fraught with contemporaneous fears and foibles. What form does society give to its unanswerable conflicts, its grinding prejudices and self-fulfilling prophecies? What, after all, is the beast? (A key line has to be an advertising director on a green screen set asking his actress: “Can you be scared of something that isn’t there?”) Here are two parallel plots that play out back to back, with the futurist frame dance between. Their implications and tensions and uncertainties circle, echo, and collapse. Bonello plays each genre almost entirely straight, but their juxtapositions accumulate and resonate. At times fleeting glitches filter in, lingering oddness even before Josée Deshaies’ cool digital frames might suddenly be pixellating, or skipping, or repeating, but just rarely enough to surprise each time. (Pity anyone seeing it streaming instead of theatrically or on a disc for the doubt they’ll have about whether these intentional choices are wi-fi troubles.) Here, in triplicate, is a woman and a man on a doomed loop of trauma reincarnated. Here, human fears feed human foibles and the inevitable dooms of our own, or others’, making. All one can do is scream as old anxieties are reborn anew and expressed afresh—familiar faces in new forms, every beginning fraught with the knowledge that this, too, shall end.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Point and Shoot: CIVIL WAR

A tense provocation, writer-director Alex Garland’s Civil War has sequences of frightening violence wherein the logic of action movies is turned inside out to make us root for the shooting to stop. Our lead characters are photojournalists courageously and recklessly charging after the action. The bullets fly and we flinch with them as the action charges ahead. We see bloodshed as intimate, personal—bodies hanging in an abandoned car wash, piled in mass graves behind farm houses, pulled apart by machine guns. The movie imagines a near-future America devolved into sectarian warfare, rebel troops amassing outside Washington to take on a fascistic president who has, in his third term, disbanded the FBI and shoots protestors. This isn’t the queasy-making romance of a lost cause, or a wishful thinking, that’s been burbling up with Civil War nostalgia for 150 years. If the United States were actually to fall into an all-out second Civil War it would look like this—balkanized, radicalized, individuated, dangerous and unpredictable. It’d be three backwoods guys with AR-15s guarding their local gas station. It’d be a random militia holed up trying to overpower and execute soldiers. It’d be insurgents storming the capitol.

Garland doesn’t worry overmuch about how we get there. The movie starts years into the conflict as we get the sense the war is drawing close to a climactic point of desperation. Dialogue has some free-floating allusions to past massacres, controversies, and realignments. We get the gist. The screenplay never announces the policy positions of its combatants, although a reasonably intelligent viewer could pin down the overarching particulars of the state of play. Instead, it stirs up its political intensity with immediacy of intent. It communicates clearly and directly, and with great force, ideas about the hell war puts all people through, and of the complicated natures of the specific people who make their mission the witnessing of it. This is a bleak vision of how some people are just waiting for an excuse to revel in chaos, and the movie plays it off with a throughly muddled sense of rooting interests. Of course we want our main characters to survive; that’s movie logic. But by stripping out actual specific policy or parties, we see only the tension between chaos and order. Stopping for speeches or debates that lay out the stakes might serve to soften the walloping dread and loud gunfire of sectarian violence and its rippling collateral damage. It’s a portrait of society in free fall, a little nervous about how plausible it could be.

Garland has often been a filmmaker interested in the fragility of the human body. Look at the time-warping drugs of Dredd or zombified rage that can infect from merely a drop in 28 Days Later. Or see the blurry lines between man and nature in the haunting alien landscapes of Annihilation and between man and machine in Ex Machina. With Civil War, Garland takes that investment in how fragile people are and pushes further into how that fragility is inextricable form the systems and institutions we build. It finds that larger perspective in sticking small and personal amidst the national ramifications. It’s confined to a picture of photographers dutifully witnessing while getting a charge out of following along—and it makes them vulnerable, too. Some (Kirsten Dunst) are disillusioned about the value of their job; her slow bleeding-out of conviction is a marvelously controlled and subtle performance. Others (Wagner Moura) gets a sick thrill out of the danger. Still others (Stephen McKinley Henderson) are tired veterans of the business, while a young newbie (Cailee Spaeny) gets a shock to her system as she enters the fray. All of them are shaken and stretched, with their fragility drawn out to the movie’s sick, cold conclusion that’s as inevitable as its central dialectic: guns and cameras are both point and shoot. The power of a still image is juxtaposed with the moving image—weaponizing a grainy freeze frame silence in the flow of clinical digital filmmaking to feel the etching of history and the foreshortening of context in each stuck frame—as it creates a tension between its creation and the chaos that breeds it. We’re left with the empty pit-of-the-stomach worry, and the wonder at what’s more powerful than fragile people rushing into history with a gun and a camera shooting in tandem—revolution written with or driven by a photo op.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Crash of the Titans: GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE

Each installment in the ongoing Hollywood Godzilla series is a little worse than the one before it. Ten years on, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla looks all the better for its thundering portent and heavy sense of scale. He shoots with mystery and mass, letting the real terror of an enormous creature seep through each frame of its monster movie paces. Its direct sequel, Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is a little less realistic in its dimensions, but the overstuffed apocalyptic mood gives a fine pulp jolt to its escalating cast of kaiju overshadowing an efficient cast of scientists and soldiers. Both are about families caught in the wake of these creatures’ paths, which gives just enough emotionality to hang on the shattering potential of such a monster mash. That’s the main inspiration that keeps writer-director Adam Wingard’s contributions connected—aside from the set dressing and proper nouns that knit the cinematic universe together—to the character strengths of its predecessors. Though finding some sentimentally in King Kong expert Rebecca Hall adopting an adorable deaf Skull Island orphan (Kaylee Hottle), his Godzilla v. Kong was generally cartoony. It’s drifting toward the outsized and preposterous, but enough of a colorful smash-em-up to be diverting. Give me a giant ape and a giant lizard fighting a giant robot and fill it up with a neon sci-fi light show and I’m reasonably satisfied, I guess. 

Wingard leans into the dumb cartoon qualities even further for the new Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire. We’ve lost whatever felt even tangentially real or threatening in the earlier entries. Now it’s CG animation for long stretches as Kong meanders through the Hollow Earth fighting big wolves and munching on enormous worms, and Godzilla plays the burly kaiju bouncer for the world’s major cities, cliff jumping off Gibraltar or curling up in the Coliseum. Hall and Hottle return to wander down in search of a distress call from deeper into the Earth’s core—taking comic relief conspiracy theorist Brian Tyree Henry and swaggering veterinarian Dan Stevens for the ride. And then, once everyone’s assembled amid the special effects of a Hollow Earth within the Hollow Earth, a rumbling wrestling tag-team erupts when an evil big monkey riding an evil big lizard take on our eponymous monsters. It’s basically an effects reel staged with reverse shots of actors reacting. That the movie is essentially passable nonetheless says something about the enduring appeal of these beasties. When Kong picks up a Mini Kong and uses it as a club to smash other monster apes, there’s a certain lizard-brained appeal. Ditto the appearances of Godzilla collecting radioactive power-ups to fuel his big finale fight. But there’s no suspense or intrigue or awe—or any believable thin genre characterization to care about—left when it’s all pitched at the most extremely broad Saturday Morning level, with nothing to provide us but cartoons collapsing through skyscrapers.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2023



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Asteroid City
2. Killers of the Flower Moon
3. Oppenheimer
4. The Holdovers
5. A Thousand and One
6. The Boy and the Heron
7. Past Lives
8. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
9. How to Blow Up a Pipeline
10. Magic Mike’s Last Dance

Honorable Mentions:
Afire; All of Us Strangers; Anatomy of a Fall; Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Barbie; The Creator; Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3; The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes; The Iron Claw; The Killer; Knock at the Cabin; May December; Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros; Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One; Napoleon; Our Body; Poor Things; Renaissance; Showing Up; Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour; The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and Three More); You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah; The Zone of Interest

Other Bests of 2023

Other Bests of 2023

Best Cinematography (Film):
Asteroid City
The Iron Claw
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
Poor Things


Best Cinematography (Digital):
The Creator
The Holdovers
Magic Mike’s Last Dance
May December
John Wick Chapter 4


Best Sound:
John Wick Chapter 4
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
The Zone of Interest


Best Stunts:
The Iron Claw
John Wick Chapter 4
The Killer
Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One
Napoleon


Best Costumes:
Asteroid City
Barbie
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Killers of the Flower Moon
Poor Things

Best Hair and Makeup:
Asteroid City
Barbie
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 3
Killers of the Flower Moon
Poor Things


Best Production Design:
Asteroid City
Barbie
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
Poor Things


Best Effects:
Asteroid City
Barbie
The Creator
Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One
Oppenheimer


Best Original Song:
“Camp Isn’t Home” — Theater Camp
“Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven)” — Asteroid City
“I’m Just Ken” — Barbie
“Live That Way Forever” — The Iron Claw

Best Score:
Asteroid City
Knock at the Cabin
Oppenheimer
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Best Editing:
Asteroid City
The Holdovers
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer


Best Adapted Screenplay:
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Killers of the Flower Moon
Oppenheimer
The Zone of Interest


Best Original Screenplay:
Asteroid City
The Holdovers
May December
Past Lives
A Thousand and One


Best Non-English Language Film:
Afire
Anatomy of a Fall
The Boy and the Heron
Godzilla Minus One
Our Body


Best Documentary:
Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros
Our Body
Renaissance
Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour


Best Animated Feature:
The Boy and the Heron
Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget
Elemental
Robot Dreams
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse


Best Supporting Actor:
Dave Bautista — Knock at the Cabin
William Catlett — A Thousand and One
Robert De Niro — Killers of the Flower Moon
Robert Downey, Jr — Oppenheimer
Ryan Gosling — Barbie

Best Supporting Actress:
Emily Blunt — Oppenheimer
Hong Chau — Showing Up
Scarlett Johansson — Asteroid City
Rachel McAdams — Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
Da’Vine Joy Randolph — The Holdovers

Best Actor:
Leonardo DiCaprio — Killers of the Flower Moon
Paul Giamatti — The Holdovers
Cillian Murphy — Oppenheimer
Joaquin Phoenix — Napoleon
Jason Schwartzman — Asteroid City

Best Actress:
Lily Gladstone — Killers of the Flower Moon
Margot Robbie — Barbie
Emma Stone — Poor Things
Teyana Taylor — A Thousand and One
Michelle Williams — Showing Up

Best Director:
Wes Anderson — Asteroid City
Christopher Nolan — Oppenheimer
Alexander Payne — The Holdovers
A.V. Rockwell — A Thousand and One
Martin Scorsese — Killers of the Flower Moon